THE STRANGEST CREATURE I EVER ENCOUNTERED

After this this article was written I received information from Louis Sorkin B.C.E., Entomologist and Arachnologist at the American Museum of Natural History in NY who identified as most likely belonging to a group of insects called reduviid bugs, a group of ambush predators that are also known as “true bugs”. I found these guys in an open field outside of an airbase in Kandahar.  I did not bring any specimens home with me.

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Roughly the the size of a large spitball, I found about ten of these odd insects in the Afghan desert inhabiting a small hole that you’d expect a tiny mouse to live in.  They only appeared in the evening, after the intense daytime heat dissipated. The legs are covered with sand particles but the rest of the body is heavily decorated with insect body parts, mainly ants from what I can see, a molt or an exoskeleton from some other creature is obvious in the photos, too.  This leads me to believe they are some kind of ant predator, but I have never seen anything like them before.  Their habitat was unfortunately destroyed by a construction project over shortly after I took these photos.

     I have wandered about several continents photographing wildlife and during that time I’ve met some truly fascinating animals.  I’ve worked with elephants and rhinoceroses in Asia, spent some quality time with baboons in Saudi Arabia, and chased hyenas in Afghanistan.  I had the opportunity to swim with alligators and catch monkeys in Florida.  I’ve caught all kinds of reptiles and I’ve watched whales and dolphins from the Pacific Northwest to Hawaii.   These were beautiful experiences and each of these animals keeps its own special grip on my heart.  But the single most intriguing one of all is a tiny thing I stumbled upon in the blazing desert of southern Afghanistan; something I’ve yet to explain.

     Kandahar, Afghanistan sits on a wide plain at the base of the end of a mountain range that begins with the towering Hindu Kush far to the northeast of the country.  These giants gradually taper down into brownish boulders and steep rolling hills to the north of the city, then finally flatten out into a plain that stretches to Iran and the southern border of Pakistan.  Animal life there is a collusion of Middle Eastern desert creatures and Central Asian beasts that run from camels to hyenas.  A cheetah native to Afghanistan once roamed there and still may in some unknown corner of this remote land.  The reptile fauna of this high desert environment is considerable.  So many in fact, a snake once fell on my head as I opened the door to my hut – but that’s a story for another day.

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     I’ve photographed many specimens.  My favorite activity on my day off was wandering about the undeveloped areas of the giant Kandahar Air Base and filming the surprising variety of wildlife that homesteaded inside this giant abode of military hardware.  At the north and northwest end of the runway an undisturbed area of several hundred acres of scrub and sand rolls out to the fenced in boundary of the base and here I spent many delightful hours creeping about stalking my little wild friends.  I usually undertook these jaunts in the morning and early afternoons in order to avoid the crushing heat of midday.  But wildlife in all of its glory is not tied to the habits of one man.  I wanted to see what kinds of creatures were out later in the day, so late one afternoon I went back out, before dark but after the sun had done its worst.

 As daylight fell toward the horizon I turned away from the “lizard beds” and headed back to my truck.  By habit I walk slowly with eyes focused on the ground and keen for any movement.  It’s an effective technique and especially so on this particular evening.  A very slight, almost negligible motion caught my attention; so slight, in fact, that I thought I had seen little dust balls pushed away from the percussion of my footsteps.  I stopped and looked closer.  Two or three of the little dust balls rolled into a small hole about the size you’d expect for a tiny field mouse.  The motion was odd.  There was no wind.  Why would these dust balls all roll into the mouse hole?  I knelt down for a closer inspection.  What I saw astounded me.

     The dust balls were actually tiny creatures.  There were about ten of the little gray beasts, all very small; two of them could fit on the head of a thumb tack.  At first I assumed they were spiderlings, little guys just leaving the nest.  But this was a strange behavior for baby spiders and there was something unspiderlike about their appearance.  They did not resemble anything I’d ever seen.  My camera, of course, was ready and I began shooting.  Soon they retreated far into their hole and the approaching darkness meant I had to leave quickly.  Afghanistan is not an ideal place to wander around after dark.  That was a shame.

When I later developed the photographs I was further amazed.  The photographs you see above are the sights that greeted me.  Here was an insect like creature that apparently lives in a small colony inside a burrow roughly as deep and wide as a quarter.  The bizarre things have covered themselves with body parts from ants and other creature that I suspect make up its diet.  Ant heads, thoraxes, and abdomens are clearly visible.  The dried scaly skeleton of another invertebrate is easily noted on one.  The creature’s bent, insect like legs are evident in the picture and on careful observation what looks like antenna sprout above the head.

     I’ve seen many wonderful specimens of wildlife in my life, but for the first time I had no idea what I was looking at.  I’d never seen anything like it before or since.  Subsequent trips to the same area were fruitless.  The evening light was not kind to the focusing abilities of my digital camera and the little guys were never visible during the bright hours of the day.  A week later the entire field was demined, meaning it was plowed to a depth of two or three feet below the surface to rid the area of mines.  (Yes, I’d been walking around out there.)  Despite hours of determined searches I have never seen these things again.  These pictures and my memory are all that remain – unless somebody out there tells me what these guys are!

HOOAH

Jack

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